, , , , ,


By T.T. Stern-Enzi



Image from ‘Girls Lost’

Every year, there are simply too many releases for a hardworking critic like myself to take in, especially when you consider how many never reach our market. Thanks to festivals and an astonishing number of new streaming services, however, a host of hard-to-find titles are now available. December presents opportunities to look back at the year that was, so I figured, why not compile a list of these under-the-radar selections and present them as my seasonal gift to you fine readers and cinema lovers. Maybe we can enjoy a few of these—for the first time—together.

“I Smile Back”

I have a thing for sad clowns—Kristen Wiig sits near the top of this list for me. The thought of Sarah Silverman as a married woman spiraling downward via sex and drugs, neglecting her children and potentially her physical and emotional health, is highly addictive to my critical psyche.


This international festival entry from writer/director Sebastian Schipper tracks the adventures of a young Spanish woman, recently settled in Berlin who, after flirting with a guy in a club, winds up on the run with a crew of bank robbers. “Victoria” injects real thrills in its heist premise thanks to Schipper’s decision to approximate the sense of danger by capturing the action in a single take.


Smart psychological horror rose to the fore behind “The Babadook,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” and “It Follows,” and I found myself eagerly awaiting the release of “Spring.” It’s the story of a 20-something American (Lou Taylor Pucci), dealing with the loss of his mother, who travels to Italy, where he encounters an enchanting woman (Nadia Hilker) with a dark secret. I’m still waiting…

“Girls Lost”

The Toronto International Film Festival always provides a hidden gem or two that I can surreptitiously share with only the most faithful film fanatics. This year’s most precious and moving secret fantasy, about three marginalized teen girls who find themselves transformed into boys, comes from Swedish filmmaker Alexandra-Therese Keining. The film features a mesmerizing blend of sexual identity confusion and magic realism.

“Je Suis Charlie”

In light of the tragic Parisian attacks Nov. 13, Daniel and Emmanuel Leconte’s documentary, which offers a moving tribute to the Charlie Hebdo journalists who were killed by Islamic extremists in January of 2015, highlights the beginning of the next stage of the international war on terror. One of the most powerful ways to fight is simply watching this account and remembering their sacrifice.


Shot entirely on a trio of iPhone 5s, this slice of indie filmmaking at its humble-best from Sean Baker (who co-wrote the script with Chris Beroch) stalks a frazzled prostitute weaving her way around Hollywood in search of her pimp on Christmas Eve. More films should strive to take audiences so far outside their comfort zones, without merely transporting us to galaxies far, far away.


Only an independent film like this one from writer John Scott III and director Henry Hobson could take an over-exposed horror genre (zombies) and an aging action hero (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and re-discover the humanity lurking beneath all of the tired tropes and movie star façade. Nothing else matters as we watch a loving father (Schwarzenegger) remain faithful to his teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) as she begins the slow transformation into a cannibalistic flesh eater.

“Clouds of Sils Maria”

This release from Olivier Assayas is a holdover from 2014, which earned not only a limited rollout in 2015, but also the first-ever Cesar win by an American performer (Kristen Stewart), for her portrayal of the under-appreciated assistant to a veteran actress (Juliette Binoche) struggling uncomfortably with her past, when she is cast in a supporting role in the play that launched her career decades earlier. This is the kind of meaningful cross-generational opportunity women long for from Hollywood.

“Out of My Hand” / “Ayanda”

This double feature—a mandatory double feature, in fact—arrives courtesy of Array, the re-branded African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, founded in 2010 by filmmaker Ava DuVernay (“Selma”). “Out of My Hand,” directed by Takeshi Fukunaga, tracks the journey of a Liberian rubber plantation worker, suffering under extreme economic hardships, who uproots his family, immigrating to New York, where he finds that he cannot escape his past or the severe isolation of this strange new land. Writer-director Sara Blecher (“Ayanda”) explores the more inwardly directed odyssey of a young woman attempting to hold onto her father’s auto repair shop in Johannesburg. Both films earned distinction at international festivals, although it is this innovative pairing via Array that has challenged the distribution system, by creating truly independent film events for audiences.